Winning the 1994 World Cup is just one reason why frail little flowers can play rugby, says Sally Jones.
It had to happen. After 12 years of growth in relative obscurity, women's rugby is in the dock thanks to one unfortunate neck injury in a club match and some ill-judged remarks from that celebrated penseur and wit, Jeff Probyn, the former England prop.
The injury, to a 20-year-old student, was caused when a scrum collapsed during a match between Portsmouth University and Worthing. The woman was airlifted to Odstock Hospital in Salisbury, where the neck injury was found to be painful but less severe than at first feared, with one bone broken, the vertebrae bruised but apparently no irreparable damage to the spinal cord.
Probyn used the incident to launch an attack on women's rugby as a whole, saying that the game was unsuitable for women and that its rapid expansion would result in more injuries. On BBC radio he declared: ``Women have a place in society, and that's a certain place, and I don't think it includes playing on rugby fields.'' He claimed that women were not physically capable of a game where the collapse of a scrum might bring half a ton of people down on one player.
``Bah, humbug!'' was the typical reaction from leading women rugby players over this piece of misplaced gallantry. So what gives Probyn the right to try to deny over half the population the chance to take part in one of the most exciting team games known to man (and, increasingly, to woman)? And why should it be perfectly acceptable for men to break their necks and pull their hamstrings, but not women?
Admittedly, rugby is a potentially dangerous game. According to Sports Council statistics, rugby players run a higher risk of injury than competitors in any other sport. On average, each player runs a one-in-ten chance of sustaining at least a minor injury on every outing. Most seasons bring a small crop of tragic incidents of players (thankfully, no women so far) crippled for life after breaking their necks or backs.
With such a high incidence of injury, nobody who plays rugby can be unaware of the risks. The England international, Carol Isherwood, one of the founders of the Women's Rugby Football Union (WRFU) and a highly-experienced coach, admits: ``All sport carries an element of danger and you can only reduce that so far. What we do is make sure that people are adequately coached and have the technique to deal with everything from scrums to lineouts. We'd never dream of putting slight teenage newcomers in sides with a lot of powerful experienced players, and we have a very good injury record indeed because of this.
``It's outrageous for Probyn to lay down the law on what is acceptable and what is feminine. Perhaps he should redefine his concept of femininity and also his ideas about commitment. We ran a World Cup on less than the Twickenham champagne budget, and the game's taken off safely and successfully, despite us having to operate on a shoestring. The likes of Probyn have no idea how far we've come on negligible resources and his remarks belittle everything we've achieved.''
Carolyn Carr, development officer of the Women's Sports Foundation, was equally indignant: ``Why should it still be so unacceptable in some quarters for women to play a physical contact sport? It's certainly rooted in all the traditional prejudices, and the way the men treasure the macho bit of being a big, tough, he-man rugby player. Maybe they think that image loses a bit of its impact when more and more women are showing that they too can play.''
Certainly women's rugby has grown rapidly in popularity since the WRFU was founded in 1983 from a hard core of around 200 players representing 12 clubs. More than 5,000 women play regularly, as well as hundreds of girls under the age of 12 playing the less physical New Image rugby in mixed teams as part of the initiative of the Rugby Football Union (RFU) to introduce youngsters to the game.
At international level the home nations are improving fast. England, beaten finalists in the first women's World Cup in Cardiff three years ago, went one better in May, taking the world title in spectacular style over the defending champions, America.
Slowly the women's game is attracting wider and more enlightened media coverage. The BBC televised highlights of both World Cups, and there are growing numbers of features in which journalists discuss the game and its stars on their merits rather than treating the very idea of women playing rugby with the same sniggering prurience that Les Dawson once brought to jokes about female mud wrestlers.
I still vividly remember covering England's first international against France at Richmond in the late Eighties and overhearing a male reporter asking one of the home side whether the players would swap shirts after the match. The reply from this highly trained, dedicated athlete at the start of the most important match of her career was to the point and quite unprintable.
Of course, large pockets of this type of patronising chauvinism remain, particularly among the more bovine male players who like to imagine rugby as an exclusively masculine ritual, and any woman who tries to muscle in is at best unfeminine and at worst lesbian a major term of abuse in such circles. During a recent edition of Rugby Special, a clip of women's rugby was shown. After much guffawing one of the male studio guests declared that he would never date a woman rugby player, as though they were members of a different breed, like a particularly brutal species of Martian.
It is the same knee-jerk male chauvinism that until recently dictated that we frail little flowers who are perfectly capable of bearing children and who, in the old Eastern bloc countries, are doing most of the hard dirty manual jobs were too delicate to run marathons, train as fighter pilots or compete at 400-metres hurdles. Try telling that to the likes of Sally Gunnell and Rosa Mota.
As Sue Dorrington, the England hooker, declared wearily: ``No one sees the likes of Jason Leonard and Jeremy Guscott getting injured and sidelined for months on end and says `men shouldn't play rugby', so why should they say that to us? I've had my share of knocks and bruises we all have but we're responsible adults and we accept that. I don't need anyone's approval to play this game. Rugby has given me a wonderful social life, a level of fitness most other people can only dream about and some of the greatest moments of my life. To deny me that because I might get hurt is paternalistic and utterly ludicrous.''
RUGBY FACT BOX
How to join.
Women's rugby: There are more than 250 clubs in Britain. For details of your local one contact Rosie Golby, The Rugby Football Union, Twickenham TW1 1DZ (081-892 8161)
Mini-rugby: David Shaw, the RFU's National Coaching and Youth Development Officer, says: ``Contact your local rugby club and see if mini rugby is provided. You must check that they operate with a qualified coach. It is also worth choosing a club which gives a caring impression.''
There are 2,500 registered rugby clubs in England and 8,000 mini rugby teams. For more information contact The RFU National Coaching and Youth Development Office, Nortonthorpe Mills, Scissett, West Yorkshire. HD8 9LA. Similar schemes are run by the rugby authorities in Wales and Scotland.
The cost: Will vary, but Saracens charges Pounds 40 per year for family membership which includes the insurance. You do not pay extra if you have more than one child in the scheme.
Kitting out Claire Humphreys cost: Boots Pounds 20. Safety studs Pounds 4. Shorts Pounds 10. Shirt Pounds 15. Socks Pounds 5. Gumshield Pounds 3.
Copyright (C) The Times, 1994
"Good try, lads, but we're still playing; Women's Rugby." Times [London, England] 28 Nov. 1994